One of my mottos for gaming is, "never lose the joy of playing in pursuit of winning."
So when I can't seem to figure out an answer in Draw Something, for example, I amuse myself..
HA! HA! FART GUN! IT IS A GUN THAT SHOOTS FARTS! HA!
Last summer, Felicia Day asked me if I wanted to develop a show together for her new premium YouTube channel, Geek and Sundry.
Spoiler alert: I said yes.
She asked me if I wanted to do a show about gaming, maybe a review show or something like that.
"I think it would be more fun do something where we play games," I said. Then, the light bulb went off.
"Oh my god," I said, "What if we did something that was like Celebrity Poker meets Dinner for Five, where we got interesting people we know together for tabletop games?!"
Felicia thought it sounded awesome, I was really excited about the idea, and we got to work. It took a few months to develop, and in December we finally shot our first block of episodes. In February, we got the band back together and shot another block of episodes, and just last week, I finished locking down the final edits for all the shows (that's why I couldn't come to Wondercon on Friday.)
In season one of the show, we play games like Settlers of Catan, The Last Night on Earth, Munchkin, Small World, and Alhambra. Some of the players include Grant Imahara, Sean Plott (better known as Day), Dodger Leigh, Ryan Higa, Beth Riesgraf, Phil Lamarr, Morgan Webb, Garfunkle and Oats, Veronica Belmont, and Colin Ferguson.
My ulterior motive with Tabletop is to show by example how much fun it is to play boardgames. I want to show that Gamers aren't all a bunch of weirdoes who can't make eye contact when they talk to you, and that getting together for a game night is just as social and awesome as getting together to watch Sportsball, or to play poker, or for a LAN party, or whatever non-gamers do with their friends. I want to inspire people to try hobby games, and I want to remove the stigma associated with gaming and gamers.
I'm pretty sure we succeeded. By the second day of production, our crew was grabbing games out of our games library to play at lunch. All of our interns and production assistants have become complete game fanatics, and whenever I edit a show, all I want to do is go home and play that game until my face falls off.
When Ryan was a Junior in college, he moved to a place where he couldn't have cats. Anne and I agreed to foster them until he took them back.
That was nearly three years ago.
When he moved across the country for his job, we officially adopted the cats we'd been fostering for years. Ryan misses them as much as we miss him, but it's worked out well for everyone. Anne and I grew to love his cats, and if you follow me on Twitter*, you know that I find the cats to be endlessly entertaining.
One of the cats, Luna, can be rather insistent about us paying attention to her. One of the ways she lets us know that we're not doing her bidding** in a way that pleases her involves pulling all of the tissues out of the tissue box when we're gone for a day, completely shredding a roll of paper towels while we're at the store, and unrolling an entire roll of toiler paper over night for some reason.
All of these things are intended to capture attention from both of us. When Luna really wants to get my attention, though, she goes after my gaming dice.
Seriously. One day, I found two full sets of dice underneath the couch in my office. The thing is, those sets were on a shelf in my closet, in a bag. I don't know how she did it, but I'm convinced that whatever skillset she used could just as easily be applied to the task of murdering me in my sleep, so I just laughed it off and told her that it was a real good thing that she did that. Real good, Luna! REAL REAL GOOD! It's a real good thing that you did that! HAHAHAHAHAHA!
A couple of days ago, I took my wallet, keys, and the d20 I carry with me just about everywhere (unless it's a d12 for some reason)*** and set them on our kitchen counter. About twenty minutes later, while I sat in my office, I heard a clang! sound, followed by Anne laughing. I walked out to see what was up, and Anne showed me the picture she had taken, shortly after the clang!:
In case you can't tell, Luna knocked my d20 off the counter and into our dogs' water dish. That's her little head reflected in the silver dish, which actually makes this picture kind of cute.
"She rolled a sixteen," Anne said, a touch of admiration in her voice that I've never heard whenever I've rolled a sixteen.
"Of course she did. It's not like it was a difficult to-hit roll."
Anne looked at me.
"I mean, she has terrain advantage, her target is prone, and…" I trailed off.
"You know what? Forget it. I'm just going to pick up my d20 and be on my way."
Anne and Luna gave me disapproving looks as I walked back to my office. I wiped my die off on my pants and gave it right back to them.
*I'm sorry, really, I am, but I told you that you shouldn't. You have nobody to blame but yourself.
**Dogs have masters; cats have staff.
***Like the one I gave Hardwick when I was on his show.
I just found out that Gary Gygax died. He was only 69.
I failed my save vs. stunning blow, so forgive me if this isn't the most polished thing in the world.
For most geeks, RPGs are a huge part of who we are, and many of the games I've loved — and continue to love — probably wouldn't exist as they do without Gary Gygax. The news reports are calling him "the father of D&D," but he was really the father of all role playing games, whether they were played with dice and paper, a deck of cards, or on a computer. Yeah, wargames existed before D&D, and fantasy existed before D&D, but D&D is the game that introduced fantasy gaming to my generation.
I didn't know him, and never met him, but his impact upon my life can't be overstated.
To honor his passing, I'd like to share an excerpt from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Geek, from Happiest Days of Our Lives:
I sat on the floor in Aunt Val’s house and opened up her Christmas present to me. It was a red box with a really cool-looking dragon on the front of it. Inside, there were a few books, some dice, a map, and a crayon to color in the dice.
“That’s a game that I hear lots of kids like to play, Willow,” she said. “It’s dragons and wizards and those things you liked from The Hobbit. The back says you use your imagination, and I know what a great imagination you have.” My brother played with Legos and my cousins played with handheld electronic games. I felt a little gypped.
“Wow,” I said, masking my disappointment. “Thanks, Aunt Val!”
Later, while the other kids played with Simon and Mattel Electronic Football, I sat near the fireplace and examined my gift. It said that I could be a wizard or a fighter, but there weren’t any pieces that looked like that. There were a lot of weird dice, but I had to color in the numbers. That seemed silly, but at least it was something to do, so I grabbed the black crayon and rubbed it over the pale blue dice, just like the instructions said.
Aunt Val (who was my favorite relative in the world throughout my entire childhood and right up until she died a few years ago) walked into the living room. “What do you think, Willow?”
“I colored the dice,” I said, and showed her the result. “But I haven’t read the book yet.”
She patted my leg. “Well, I hope you like it.” She moved to the other side of the room, where my cousin Jack poked at a Nintendo Game and Watch.
I opened the Player’s Guide and began to read.
It was afternoon PE in fifth grade, and I was terrified. I ran and jumped and ducked, surrounded by a jeering crowd of my classmates. The PE teacher did nothing to stop the attack – and, in fact, encouraged it.
“Get him!” someone yelled as I fell to the asphalt, small rocks digging into my palms. I breathed hard. Through my adrenaline-fueled flight-or-fight response, the world slowed, the jeering faded, and I wondered to myself why our playground was just a parking lot and why we had to wear corduroy pants in the middle of a Southern California heat wave. Before I could offer any answers, a clear and loud voice spoke from within my head. “Hey,” it said. “You’d better get up and move, or you’re dead.”
I nodded my head and looked up in time to see the red playground ball, spinning in slow motion, as the word “Voit” rotated into view. Pain exploded across my face and a mighty cheer erupted from the crowd. The PE teacher blew her whistle.
I don’t know how I managed to be the last kid standing on our team. I usually ran right to the front of the court so I could get knocked out quickly and (hopefully) painlessly before the good players got worked up by the furor of battle and started taking head shots, but I’d been stricken by a bout of temporary insanity – possibly caused by the heat – on this February day, and I’d actually played to win the game, using a very simple strategy: run like hell and hope to get lucky.
I blinked back tears as I looked up at Jimmie Just, who had delivered the fatal blow. Jimmie was the playground bully. He spent as much time in the principal’s office as he did in our classroom, and he was the most feared dodgeball player at the Lutheran School of the Foothills.
He laughed at me, his long hair stuck to his face in sweaty mats, and sneered. “Nice try, Wil the Pill.”
I picked myself up off the ground, determined not to cry. I sucked in deep breaths of air through my nose.
Mrs. Cooper, the PE teacher, walked over to me. “Are you okay, Wil?” she asked.
“Uh-huh,” I lied. Anything more than that and I risked breaking down into humiliating sobs that would follow me around the rest of the school year, and probably on into sixth grade.
“Why don’t you go wash off your face,” she said, not unkindly, “and sit down for a minute.”
“Okay,” I said. I walked slowly across the blacktop to the drinking fountains. Maybe if I really took my time, I could run out the clock and I wouldn’t have to play another stupid dodgeball game.
Papers scattered across my bed appeared to be homework to the casual observer, but to me they were people. A thief, a couple of wizards, some fighters: a party of adventurers who desperately wanted to storm The Keep on the Borderlands. But without anyone to guide them, they sat alone, trapped in the purgatory of my bedroom, straining behind college-ruled blue lines to come to life.
I tried to recruit my younger brother to play with me, but he was 7, and more interested in Monchichi. The kids in my neighborhood were more interested in football and riding bikes, so I was left to read through module B2 by myself, wandering the Caves of Chaos and dodging Lizard Men alone.
I washed my face and drank deeply from the drinking fountain. By the time I made it back to the benches along the playground’s southern edge, I’d lost the urge to cry, but my face radiated enough heat to compete with the blistering La Crescenta sun.
I sat down near Simon Teele, who, thanks to the wonders of alphabetization, ended up with me and Harry Yan (the school’s lone Asian kid) on field trips, on fire drills, and in chapel. Simon was taller than all of us, wore his hair down into his face, and really kept to himself. He was reading an oversized book that sort of looked like a textbook, filled with charts and tables.
We weren’t officially friends, but I knew him well enough to make polite conversation.
“Hey,” I said. “Why don’t you have to play dodgeball?”
“Asthma,” he said.
“Lucky,” I said. “I hate dodgeball.”
“Everyone hates dodgeball,” he said, “except Jimmie Just.”
“Yeah,” I said, relieved to hear someone else say out loud what I’d been thinking since fourth grade.
“Hey,” I said. “What are you reading?”
He held up the book and I saw its cover: a giant statue, illuminated by torches, sat behind an archway. Two guys were on its head, prying loose one of its jeweled eyes, as a group of people stood at the base. One was clearly a wizard; another was obviously a knight.
“Player’s Handbook,” he said. “Do you play D&D?”
I gasped. According to our ultra-religious school, D&D was Satanic. I looked up for teachers, but none were nearby. A hundred feet away on the playground, another game of dodgeball was underway. I involuntarily flinched when I heard the hollow pang! of the ball as it skipped off the ground.
“You’re going to get in trouble if you get caught with that,” I said.
“No, I won’t,” he said. “If I just keep it turned upside down, they’ll never see it. So do you play or not?”
“I have the red box set,” I said, “and a bunch of characters, but I don’t have anyone to play with.”
“That’s Basic,” he said. “This is Advanced.”
“But if you want, you could come over to my house this weekend and we could play.”
I couldn’t believe my good luck. With a dodgeball to the face, Fate put me on the bench next to the kid who, over the next few months, helped me take my first tentative steps down the path to geekdom. He had a ton of AD&D books: the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which had a truly terrifying demon on the cover, and would result in certain expulsion if seen at school; the Monster Manual, which was filled with dragons; and the Fiend Folio, which not only had demons and devils, but a harpy and a nymph, accompanied by a drawing of a naked woman! with boobs!!
Simon’s parents were divorced, and he lived with his mom in a huge house in La Canada. His room was filled with evidence of a custody Cold War. Too many toys to count littered the floor and spilled out of the closet, but even though we were surrounded by Atari and Intellivision, GI Joe and Transformers, we had D&D fever, and the only prescription was more polyhedral dice.
Of all the things I do that make me a geek, nothing brings me as much joy as gaming. It all started with the D&D Basic Set, and today it takes an entire room in my house to contain all of my books, boxes, and dice.
Thank you for giving us endless worlds to explore, Gary Gygax. Rest in peace.
The boat rocked as gently as a giant boat can rock when it's pushing 19 knots. A fresh breeze made small white caps in the sea. The sun — the Nerd's natural enemy — was directly above us in a cloudless sky.
I sat with Anne on the aft pool deck of the Westerdam, my feet floating in the water.
"It's amazing how just putting my feet in the water cools me down," I said. "I wish my heat sinks in Mechwarrior had worked this well."
She gave me a familiar look that indicated I'd traded English for a foreign language without warning.
"It's an old game I used to play all the time. Forget it"
She gave me a familiar look that indicated she'd already forgotten it.
Seamonkey Matt walked past us on the deck. A few days earlier, he'd asked me if I was interested in playing Settlers of Catan1 with him before the cruise was over. I told him that I was, but I didn't want to be inside when it was beautiful outside, and I didn't know if I'd have time. It turned out that, at this moment, I had time, and we were already outside where it was beautiful.
"Hey, Matt!" I called out, "want to have that game of Settlers now?"
"Yeah," he said. "I'll go grab it from the game room."
Aside: One of the greatest things about this cruise was the 24 hour game room, stocked with a library of games brought by Sea Monkeys that rivaled or exceeded the libraries I've seen at some conventions dedicated to gaming. I'm sure pictures of this game room will be published soon, and when you see it you will understand why I loved going in there so much. It was like Sea Monkey Headquarters, and there were always people playing games down there, having a fantastic time.
At one point, some Snorks2 attempted to invade the room, so a sign had to be set up announcing that it was a "Private Function." This sign was immediately anagrammed into several different phrases, my favorite ones involving Pirates.
A few minutes later, Matt returned with Settlers in hand. We found a table that was protected from the sun, and began looking for group. I quickly found my son, Ryan, and asked him to play with us.
"I've never played Settlers," he said.
"Yes you have. We played this all the time when you were little. You'll remember as soon as you see the board."
As we began to put the board together he said, "Oh, I remember this. Wood for sheep!"
"Yep, that's the one."
We had three players and wanted a fourth. I looked up from the table and saw that my friend Stepto — formerly known as The Banhammer of Xbox Live — was passing by.
"Stepto! Want to play Settlers with us?"
"Sure!" He said.
We finished setting up the board, placed our initial settlements, and began the game. Like all Settlers games, the first few rounds involved many fruitless efforts to acquire wood and brick, but eventually we settled into a pretty good game. Stepto and Ryan began competing for the longest road, and Sea Monkey Matt and I began a minigame involving screwing each other relentlessly with the Robber.
After about 40 minutes of play, we were all separated by two points, with Sea Monkey Matt in the lead. Stepto had run his road into a circle, and Ryan was ruthlessly chipping away, one segment at a time, until he achieved and kept the longest road.
It was Ryan's turn, and he rolled a seven, which allowed him to move the robber. Stepto and Matt had cities on one of the elevens, which I think made Ore. Ryan wanted to screw Stepto and steal from Matt, so it was a logical place to move the Robber. Ryan moved the Robber, stole a resource from Matt, and then traded that resource back to Matt for whatever it was that he actually wanted.
"I'm proud of your evil, my son," I may have said, in a Darth Vader voice.3
The dice were passed to me, and I rolled an eleven. I should point out that not a lot of elevens had been rolled, because it is only rolled 5.56% of the time.4
"Oh, come on!" Matt said.
"Seriously?!" Stepto said.
"It sucks to be you guys," I said. "I have Sheep for Ore… anyone want to trade me Sheep for Ore?" I took an Evil Wheaton Pause™. "Oh, I'm sorry, it turns out nobody has Ore but me right now, so I guess I'll just trade it to the box for Wheat."
"It's ironic that I don't have any Wheat at all," Ryan said, "Considering our name and all."
I smiled. Ryan doesn't know it, but when he calls me his father, or makes any reference to being proud of his name — he changed his name to Wheaton when I adopted him — I get something in both of my eyes, probably from my heart growing three sizes and pushing leaky emotion fluid out of them.
I passed the dice to Stepto. "It is your turn, sir," I said with a flourish for some reason.
Stepto rolled an eleven.
Before any of us could say or do anything, Sea Monkey Matt held his hands up to the heavens, looked across the table at Ryan, and shouted, "WHEEEEAAAAAATTTTOOONNN!!!!"
A very small group of Sea Monkeys had gathered around us, and were watching us play. They all laughed. Ryan laughed. I laughed. Stepto laughed.
I said, "that was awesome. I hear that reference all the time, but that's the first time I've heard it in reference to a different Wheaton than me, and in context, no less."
I high-fived Ryan. "The world needs more Evil Wheaton," I said.
"I'm working on it," Ryan said.
The game ended shortly after that. I got stuck at nine points, and Matt finally got his tenth point one round before I could catch him.
I was glad that he won the game. Matt didn't know it, but by making that reference, in an entirely appropriate context, to my son who took my name, was the highlight of the entire game for me. It was easily one of my top five awesome moments on the whole cruise, and maybe even number one.
1. The Settlers of Catan is a fantastic German-style boardgame, and it is our generation's Monopoly. If you haven't played it, I can't recommend it enough. In addition to the traditional tabletop version of the game, it's on iPad, iPhone, Android, Xbox Live, and PSN.
2. Our code name for the angry, entitled, complaining octogenarians who meandered all over the boat.
3. This didn't really happen, but wouldn't it have been awesome if it had? Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, Writers.
4. Pushes glasses up.
I’m on JoCoCruiseCrazy 2, and I’m taking an Internet vacation until I get home. So every day while I’m gone, something from my archives will post here automatically, for your entertainment. I had a lot of fun picking these different things out, and I hope you enjoy them again, or for the first time.
This isn't a book; it's a time machine.
This is where it all began for me: the D&D Basic Rules Set. When I opened this book in 1983, I had no idea that it would change my life. Back then, if you told 11 year-old me that I'd be 36 and wiping tears from my face because reading it brought back so many joyful memories, he would have called you one of the names the cool kids called him for playing it. (Don't judge him too harshly; he's only 11.)
My original D&D Basic set was a garage sale casualty, but the book in this picture is a first printing that I bought at a game store about ten years ago. It's perfect in every way, except for a missing character sheet in the middle, which I printed from the PDF copy I bought from Paizo last year.
The Keep on the Borderlands module beneath it belonged to someone named Randy Richards, who wrote his name and phone number (as we so often did in those days) on the cover. I don't know who Randy Richards is, if he cares, or if he'll even read this, but if he does, I want him to know: your book is in very good hands, Randy, and its current owner loves it as much as anyone could.
I've been on a real D&D kick lately (blame the Penny Arcade podcast, and how much I love 4e) but I hadn't actually gone back to the beginning and read the Basic Rules for a very, very long time. So late last night, after my family went to sleep, instead of watching TV or reading blogs, I went to my bookshelf and grabbed the Player's Manual you see in this picture. I read it cover-to-cover for the first time in over 20 years, and played the solo adventure, which was the very first dungeon I ever visited. I named my fighter Thorin, just like I did when I was a kid. I made a map on graph paper, rolled dice on the floor, and felt pure joy wash over me. I scared off a Giant Rat and killed the remaining two before I failed – like I did when I was 11 – to solve the riddle of O-T-T-F-F-S-S, losing all my treasure. I tried to talk to the Goblins … before I killed them and took their treasure: 100 sp and 50 gp. I battled the Rust Monster, who was just as tough and unreasonable an opponent for a first level fighter as I remember. Thorin eventually managed to defeat it with some … creative … trips back to town to replace his armor and weapons, just like he did a quarter century ago. Luckily for him, the Rust Monster didn't heal between battles … just like the last time he faced it. I decided to leave the skeletons for another time, and walked back to town with my 650 gp and 100 sp. When I calculated my XP, I had earned 1084 … not too shabby. I closed up my book, and went to sleep happy.
When I was a kid, the D&D Basic Rules Set was never just a game to me; it was my portal into a magical, wonderful world that I still love. Now that I'm an adult, it isn't just a couple of books to me; it's a time machine.
The world I live in is filled with uncertainty and occasionally-overwhelming responsibility, but for an hour or so last night, I was 11 years-old again, and I went back to a world where the biggest problem I faced was trying to save up for a Millennium Falcon. When I read "You decide to attack the goblins before they can get help…" I could hear my Aunt Val tell me “That’s a game that I hear lots of kids like to play, Willow. It’s dragons and wizards and those things you liked from The Hobbit. The back says you use your imagination, and I know what a great imagination you have.” I could feel the weight of my Red Box, which I carried with me pretty much everywhere I went, and how huge the thing felt in my tiny arms. I could feel it get heavier as I added modules and characters, and my own dungeons, drawn on graph paper. I could hear the snap of the thick green rubber band I eventually had to wrap around it, and I could see the yellowing scotch tape I added to the corners.
I enjoyed it so much, I'm going to reread the Dungeon Master's Rulebook next, and run the Group Game adventure it contains, "for use by a beginning Dungeon Master." Then, it's time to go back to the Keep on the Borderlands, using just the Basic Rules, where Magic-users can't wear armor, Fighters have 8 HP, Dwarf and Elf are classes, and everyone dies at least once before finally taking a character to second level, because that's where it all started for me, and sometimes you just have to go back to your roots.
I’m on JoCoCruiseCrazy 2, and I’m taking an Internet vacation until I get home. So every day while I’m gone, something from my archives will post here automatically, for your entertainment. I had a lot of fun picking these different things out, and I hope you enjoy them again, or for the first time.
When the MCP Was Just A Chess Program
My extremely active imagination was forged in the playground fire of a childhood spent weak and strange. I read books while other kids played football; I played and wrote computer games while other teens went to makeout parties. While I couldn't get to second base on the kickball field at school or in Justine Baker's house, by the end of middle school I had taken the One Ring to Mordor, destroyed the Death Star, and designed and populated countless dungeons.
The real world was a pretty miserable place for a kid like me. I did everything I could to find ways to step out of it: one page at a time in a book or one quarter at a time in the arcade, the more immersive the game, the better. I was never a huge fan of Battlezones gameplay, but it remains the closest Ive ever come to actually driving a tank. I always favored the sit-down versions of games like Pole Position, Spy Hunter, and Sinistar. They felt more . . . real . . . than their stand-up brothers, providing a cleaner escape from the kids at Pinball Plus who took pitiless joy in pointing out that my shoes were Traxx from Kmart, not Vans from the mall.
While game designers and arcade owners did all they could with cabinet systems and sound design (I defy anyone to tell me they didnt want their Slush Puppy shaken, not stirred after a particularly rousing round of Spy Hunter, with music blasting behind their heads, their feet jammed down on the gas, and imagined breezes blowing through their feathered hair), it was our imagination that did most of the work of creating the alternate reality, especially on our console systems at home.
The earliest video games didnt just encourage us to use our imaginations when we played them, they forced us to. Yars Revenge, the best-selling original title on the Atari 2600, has simple yet entertaining gameplay, but it was supported by an extraordinarily rich backstory, turning it into one chapter in an epic struggle for cosmic justice. When I was 9, I wasn't just chipping away at the shield while I readied my Zorlon cannon; I was helping the Yar extract revenge on the Qotile for the destruction of their planet, Razak IV, as illustrated in the comic that came with the game.
When I was 10 or 11, I arranged a TV tray, a dining room chair, and a worn blanket to make a small tent in front of our 24-inch TV set. I carefully moved our Atari 400 onto the tray and plugged Star Raidersinto the cartridge slot. I flipped the power on, picked up the joystick, and booted up my imagination as I sat in the command chair of my very own space ship. For the next hour, I was a member of the Atarian Starship Fleet. I was all that stood between the Zylon Empire and the destruction of humanity. Through my cockpits viewscreen (developed at great expense by the RCA corporation back on Earth) I blasted Zylon starships and Zylon basestars, and I would have defeated them all, if my meddling mother hadn't made me stop and eat dinner!
Over the years, I built bigger and better immersive environments for myself, using transistor radios and walkie-talkies to complete a cockpit with a Vectrex as the main viewer. I made maps of whatever jungle I explored as Pitfall Harry and hung them on my bedroom walls. I created star charts and galactic maps for everything from Asteroids to Cosmic Ark. When I copied game programs out of Antic magazine, I dimmed the lights and did it in the dark, because that seemed like something real hackers would do. (This probably explains a rash of headaches suffered by real hackers throughout the 80s and 90s.)
In 1984, after cutting my teeth on the Atari 400 and TI-99/4A, I got my first Macintosh computer. While it had word processing and drawing ability like nothing I'd seen up to that point in my life, it didnt have any real games, and its programming environment was confounding to the point of uselessness. There wasnt enough combined imagination in the world to make MacVegas fun, especially when my friends with Commodores and PCs could show off a game like Kings Quest. I was despondent.
My disappointment softened when I discovered Macventure games by ICOM Simulations: DeJa Vu in 1985, Uninvited in 1986, and Shadowgate in 1987. While these games werent as technologically advanced or immersive as some in the arcades, they gave me access to worlds that were richer than the ones I'd visited before. They felt less linear, less finite, and engaged my imagination in ways I hadnt felt since I built my first Atarian Starship in our living room so many years before. And when I finished them, I got a diploma that I could print out slowly on my dot-matrix Imagewriter.
As I grew older and came of age in the 80s, I looked to gaming more for stimulation and entertainment than for escape. I was still attracted to immersive environments, though, and loved games like Defender of the Crown and NeTrek. Around 1988 or 1989, an unlikely game captured my imagination and transported me to another world like nothing had before. Maybe its because I was such a huge geek, maybe its because Id been reading Choose Your Own Adventure books since I was in fourth grade, or maybe its because I was working on Star Trek every day and my imagination was constantly in an excited state, but Infocoms The Lurking Horror completely pulled me into its virtual world. It was just green text on a black background, and there wasnt even any sound, but I was Flynn to its MCP. I spent hours okay, days exploring G.U.E. Tech and the nightmares therein. My imagination took the words and created something scary and real. I had finally found the totally immersive game Id been looking for my entire life in my fragile eggshell mind, where I got to control everything from the sound of a floor waxer to the darkness of the steam tunnels. After I finished it, I played every interactive fiction title I could get my hands on, from Zork to Leather Goddesses of Phobos to Planetfall to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. (I think Ill get over Macho Grande before I get over my inability to capture the babelfish without using Invisiclues.)
My kids live in a very different world than I did. Their immersive, narrative gaming experiences are the space shuttle to my paper airplane. Several months ago, I showed my 17-year-old stepson some of the classic Infocom games that I loved when I was his age. After growing up in a world where our Xbox 360 is more powerful than every console I owned in my entire childhood, combined and squared, he could appreciate the historical significance but was otherwise unimpressed. (This is what gaming was for you? That's weird.) I was a little saddened, but it quickly passed. After all, when I was his age, I could only dream of one day putting myself into a living, breathing world like Liberty City. Its a consequence of progress, I guess, and I'm sure that one day he'll show my incredulous grandchildren these games he used to play that were confined to a television set. (You had to use an external console, not a wetware chipslot? That's weird.)
As I wrote this column, I got a jones to hop in a bathysphere and spend some time back in Rapture. I already finished Bioshock once, but it wasn't the plasmids or the music or the visual design that pulled me back; it was the story. It was a desire to experience Andrew Ryan's world once again, to find every single diary and explore every single room, to feel like I was back under the sea in that incredible place.
I played for several hours one day, discovering some new areas and reliving some half-remembered favorites. I eventually found myself under Sander Cohen's spotlight, pulled away only when my wife asked me - for what was apparently the third or fourth time - to come to dinner. I saved the game and shut down the console. After we ate, I grabbed my controller, and prepared to go back to Fort Frolic.
What I found was worse than a room filled with Splicers: the dreaded Red Ring of Death. To anyone who doubts the narrative power of modern video games, I submit myself: I felt like I was in the middle of a book, only to have it ripped from my hands and thrown into a fire. I felt like I was watching a movie, only to have the film catch and burn through somewhere in the fourth reel. It was fabula interrupta.
Waiting for my 360 to get back from the gaming doctor and restore my access to Rapture and points beyond isn't as bad as one might think, though. I still have all my books and movies and hobby games and other nerdly escape routes. And, I confess, I keep a Z Machine interpreter on my Mac, so I'm never too far away from an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door.
Since I started tabletop gaming mumblecough years ago, I've always found storytelling inspiration from the RPGs. From designing my character and developing his back story, to building a world and populating it with allies and adversaries, the games I've played have lived on in my imagination long after I've gotten up from the table and put the dice back in their bag. But it wasn't until recently that I heard Steve Jackson say "all games are role playing games, in their own way", and I realized that there's just as much inspiration to be found in tabletop boardgames as there is in tabletop RPGs.
I've been playing the hell out of the tabletop and iOS versions of the game Elder Sign. In addition to having a whole lot of fun trying (and frequently failing) to save the world from The Ancient Ones, it's inspired me to dive ever deeper into the world that HP Lovecraft created in the 1920s. I've been reading his stories, listening to their audio versions, and nudging my subconscious toward developing my own short story set in his world. Whenever my mind wanders these days, it veers dangerously close to the Mountains of Madness.
If you'd told me a few weeks ago that a boardgame that takes 45 minutes to play (and its iOS version that takes about 20 minutes to play) would capture my imagination and inspire me to try my hand at writing a Lovecraftian story, I would have thought you'd uncovered a Secret Man Was Not Meant To Know… but here we are.
This is one of the wonderful aspects of gaming, that I think gets overlooked: when we play games, we're using our imaginations to bring cardboard and plastic to life. If we're lucky, that spark can start a fire that burns long after the game has been put away.
By the way, if you're interested in Lovecraft, but don't know where to start, you may want to check out the incredible collection of Lovecraft's complete works that Cthulhuchick put together, and listen to the fantastic Stuff You Should Know episode about the Necronomicon. I can't recommend Neil Gaiman's I, Cthulhu enough. I also found this collection of Lovecraft audio works at archive.org that's pretty comprehensive and very well produced.
Anyway, here are two of the many amazeballs things they got excited and made:
I wish I hadn't mumblemumblesomethingcough, because it would have been awesome to see this happen in real time, but if you like what you see here (and here and here and here), then please consider making a donation to Child's Play Charity.
In the introduction to my short collection of gaming essays called Games Matter, I wrote:
Of all the things that make me a geek, nothing brings me more joy, or is more important to me, than gaming. I am the person I am today because of the games I played and the people I played them with as I came of age in the 80s.
Playing games — from video games to role playing games to hobby board games — has been as much of a constant in my life as acting and creating stories. This isn't surprising to me at all, because gaming and acting and storytelling are all interwoven in my life.
About a year ago, my gaming group, who I've played with since high school, suffered a TPK. It's complicated, and it's genuinely tragic, but it's the reality I now have to deal with: getting a group together to play games is, for the first time in my life, much harder than simply sending out an e-mail or making a few phone calls.
I know, I know, #nerdworldproblems.
Still, I miss pulling a huge stack of boardgames out of my closet, putting them on the dining room table, and wondering what we're going to end up playing when everyone gets here. I miss investing in an RPG character I'm playing, or a campaign I'm running, and looking at that day on the calendar when we'll be back in that game's world.
Being a capital-G Gamer, it isn't surprising to me that I miss gaming with some degree of regularity… what does surprise me is realizing that I miss gaming as much — and with the same sense of emotional loss — as I miss acting and writing when I'm not doing those things.
For the last few days, I've been lucky, and I've had some friends around to play the hell out of a lot of games. We've played Last Night On Earth, Settlers, Ticket to Ride, Say Anything, Small World, Munchkin, Chez Geek, and more.
Last night, as I was falling asleep after an evening of gaming, beers and pizza with some friends, I realized that before this past week, I hadn't played games in so long, I had forgotten how much I need to play them. I realized how much I missed playing them, the way you miss a person you love when you don't see them for weeks or months at a time.
In a weird way, I'm grateful for the sadness I feel when I think about having three bookshelves that are filled with games I probably won't get to play as much as I want to, because when I finally do get to play them, like I have recently, I appreciate it that much more.
So let me close this by going all Voice of Experience on you: Keep playing games. Make time to play games with your friends and family, because it's surprisingly heartbreaking to wipe a thin layer of dust off a game you love, before you put it back on the shelf because the real world is calling you.